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GUT SYMMETRIES. By Jeanette Winterson . Alfred A. Knopf: 240 pp., $22

April 13, 1997|AUDREY BILGER | Audrey Bilger teaches English at Claremont McKenna College

"Gut Symmetries," the title sticks in one's throat, the clipped percussion of the first word clashing with the sibilant wave of its partner. When I first heard the title of Jeanette Winterson's new novel over the phone last fall, I thought I had a bad connection. Unlike Winterson's other titles, which range from the elevated ("Art and Lies," "Art [Objects]") to the playful ("Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit," "Boating for Beginners") to the visceral ("Sexing the Cherry," "Written on the Body"), this title poses a challenge. The word gut, its physicality, its vulgarity, the fact that as a verb it means "to disembowel" has a disturbing effect when coupled with a word that indicates balance and order. Before I even laid hands on the book, I was drawn into its conundrum.

I found no easy answers. One of the book's three narrators calls the story a "journey through the thinking gut," and again I came up against a question mark. "Gut feelings" I could follow, but "gut thinking" is a fork in the road, two paths that lead in seemingly opposite directions.

My confusion about where to go made me realize that I was on Winterson's territory. She deliberately unsettles her readers. In her 1995 manifesto "Art [Objects]," Winterson writes: "What I am seeking to do in my work is to make a form that answers to 21st century needs. A form that is not 'a poem' as we usually understand the term, and not 'a novel' as the term is defined by its own genesis. I do not write novels. The novel form is finished." This ambition to transcend generic and temporal boundaries has given rise to the experimental virtuosity of her work.

If Winterson's goal is to take her readers beyond traditional boundaries, her books provide abundant supplies for the journey. They are capacious portmanteaus, full of allusions and overflowing with odds and ends that may or may not prove useful, such as references to William Blake, Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot and Italo Calvino, among others, and a musical score at the conclusion of "Art and Lies" (1994). "Gut Symmetries" is lined with theories of alchemy and quantum physics, embroidered with signs of the Zodiac and cards from the Tarot deck. History, science and mysticism jangle around inside, along with birth, death, love and cannibalism.

Winterson's call for a new form of fiction takes shape in the book's prologue with a theory that combines Paracelsus and hyperspace before breaking the work down into its basic building blocks: "Here follows a story of time, universe, love affair and New York. The Ship of Fools, A Jew, a diamond, A dream a working-class boy, a baby, a river, the subatomic joke of unstable matter." Lest we take this summary as a reason to relax and just "enjoy the book," we are next treated to a series of definitions that mystify rather than clarify. For example, "Working-Class Boy" is "Drive disc of Capitalism. Girl or boy. An unexploded dream." Once we process--if we can indeed process--the idea that a "boy" can be a girl, we are ready to cross boundaries freely and play along with the book's metaphysics.

"Gut Symmetries," like Winterson's other works, is a negotiation between states of confusion and moments of clarity. The central plot is relatively easy to follow despite its unconventional twists: Girl (Alice) meets boy (Jove), girl meets boy's wife (Stella), and a three-way love triangle ensues. In the telling, however, the storyline falls prey to the intricacies of an unstable universe. Early on, Alice comments, "I know I am a fool, trying to make connections out of scraps but how else is there to proceed? . . . I cannot assume you will understand me. It is just as likely that as I invent what I want to say, you will invent what you want to hear." The story shifts, depending upon whose perspective we're hearing, and as we proceed, we are asked to question our own role as readers in making sense of, and thereby creating, the tale.

Like most Winterson characters, the cast of "Gut Symmetries" spends a great deal of time thinking--about themselves, about loving and the possibility of connection, about making sense out of the incoherence of existence. Alice and Stella, the two main narrators--one a scientist, the other a poet--come at thinking from two completely different standpoints. Whereas Alice filters her emotions and is afraid of "feeling unthinkingly," Stella feels fiercely and thinks in prose-poetry.

For instance, Stella responds to learning about Jove's infidelity by raging through their living space, dismembering their shared possessions and throwing his things out the window as experiments in gravity. When the trio arranges to meet for monthly confrontations, Stella and Jove shout and break things. Alice stoically offers refreshments.

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